New Orleans Saints 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Over the past three seasons, no team has won more regular season games than the Saints, who are 37-11 over that span. However, all three seasons have ended in disappointing playoff losses before they could even reach the Super Bowl. In 2017, they lost on a last second Hail Mary now known as the Minnesota Miracle. In 2018, they lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship primarily because of a missed pass interference that was so paid it caused the NFL to temporarily change the rules to allow pass interference to be challenged. Last season, it wasn’t quite as bad, but they still lost a tightly contested game in overtime as big home favorites.

Three disappointing playoff exits would be tough for any team, but it’s especially tough for a team like the Saints, who have one of the most veteran rosters in the league and have consistently mortgaged future cap space to keep talented veteran rosters under the cap. No player has a ticking clock more than quarterback Drew Brees, who is heading into his age 41 season and what many expect will be his final season in the league, having already negotiated a media contract with NBC Sports for after retirement. Without Brees, this probably isn’t a true contending team, so their window is closing quickly and, when the window closes, it could easily close hard, given that they would be 23 million over the projected 2021 cap even if Brees retires. The Saints can’t afford another early playoff exit because they might not get another good shot for a while.

For now, the Saints’ Super Bowl window appears to be wide open, assuming quarterback Drew Brees doesn’t see his abilities fall off completely in his age 41 season. Even if he falls off a little bit, the rest of this team is talented enough to compensate, as they once again have kept a lot of veteran talent under the cap. I’ll get into the rest of the roster later, but Brees is coming off of another vintage year, completing 74.3% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, ranking 2nd in the NFL in QB rating and 3rd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, his 14th straight season in the top-6 among quarterbacks on PFF in as many years in New Orleans. The only real difference between Brees’ 2019 season and the rest of his tenure with the Saints is that he missed almost 6 full games with a thumb injury, after previously missing just 1 game due to injury in the previous 13 seasons combined.

The Saints lost the game Brees got hurt in, but actually went on to win their next 5 in a row, allowing Brees to return to a first place team. Part of the reason why they kept winning without Brees was the play of backup Teddy Bridgewater, an experienced starter and high level backup who completed 65.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Bridgewater had a lot of help on offense though and the offense was not what led them to victory in those games. 

With Bridgewater in the lineup, the Saints had just a 34.15% first down rate, most equivalent to the 24th ranked Lions on the season. They won those games primarily because Brees’ absence coincided with the Saints’ best defensive stretch of the season, as they allowed a 32.01% first down rate in those 5 wins, as opposed to a 36.10% first down rate the rest of the season. Even though the Saints won with Bridgewater, they were undoubtedly better with Brees in the lineup, as they had a 41.86% first down rate in games Brees started and finished last season, which would have been best in the NFL over the full season. If Brees keeps it up, the Saints should easily be among the top offenses in the league again, after ranking in the top-4 in first down rate in 7 straight seasons, even doing so last season with Brees missing about a third of the season.

Bridgewater’s play in limited action last season got him a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal from division rival Carolina, so the Saints had to find a new backup quarterback and did so by scooping up Jameis Winston, formerly of division rival Tampa Bay, on an incentivized 1-year, 1.1 million dollar deal. Winston became the first quarterback since 1988 to throw more than 30 interceptions in a season last year and has been the most turnover prone starting quarterback in the league over his 5-year career, but the former #1 overall pick also led the league in passing yards last season with 5,109, threw a new career high touchdowns with 33, and has a career 7.75 YPA average in 70 career starts, so he comes with plenty of upside as a reclamation project, still only going into his age 26 season. 

I’m not convinced Winston will ever figure it out consistently enough to be a capable starting quarterback, but there are few better places for him to rehabilitate his career than in New Orleans and, even as turnover prone as he is, he’s still better than most backup options. The Saints will obviously just have to hope they don’t need him. They also have the versatile Taysom Hill, who played 36 of his 243 offensive snaps as a traditional quarterback last season and threw 6 pass attempts. 

Hill still has just 13 career regular season pass attempts, but he’s added 352 yards and 3 touchdowns on 64 carries (5.50 YPC) and 22 catches for 238 yards and another 6 scores through the air over the past 2 seasons combined and the extension the Saints gave him this off-season with 16 million guaranteed suggests he could be seen as Brees’ long-term successor, or at least that they view him as a big part of the post-Brees plan. With Brees, Winston, and Hill, the Saints are as loaded as you can be at the quarterback position.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

When talking about the talent that Brees has around him, it’s hard not to start with prolific wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was added as a 2nd round pick in 2016. In 4 years with the Saints, Thomas has had a noticeable impact on Drew Brees’ production. Prior to the addition of Thomas, Brees completed 67.6% of his passes for an average of 7.73 YPA, 348 touchdowns, and 152 interceptions in 10 seasons with the Saints, great numbers, but not compared to Brees’ time with Thomas. 

In the past 4 seasons, Brees had completed 72.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 119 touchdowns, and 32 interceptions, a 108.2 QB rating (best in the NFL over that span), including a 116.9 QB rating specifically when targeting Thomas. It’s become easier to pass in recent years and passing numbers are up across the board, but there’s no denying the impact Thomas has had for Brees, as he is easily the most talented pass catcher he has gotten to play with throughout his incredible career. 

In 4 years together, they have combined for an average 118/1378/8 slash line per season on a ridiculous 77.9% completion. Thomas himself has finished in the top-8 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, including three straight seasons in the top-3. Not only are Thomas’ 470 career catches for 5,512 yards both the most ever for a player in his first 4 seasons in the league, but they also rank 1st and 2nd respectively in the NFL among all pass catchers over that period of time. Perhaps most impressively, Thomas has seen his catches and his yardage go up in every season in the league, going from 92/1137/9 as a rookie to 149/1725/9 last season. 

The Saints kept him long-term on an 5-year, 96.25 million dollar extension, which seems like a lot of money and in fact it made him the highest paid wide receiver in the league last off-season when it was signed, but he’s already only the 3rd highest paid wide receiver in the league behind Julio Jones and Amari Cooper and this contract value will just keep looking better as other wide receivers sign for more money and as Thomas continues performing at a high level throughout the final four years of his deal. Still only going into his age 27 season with just 1 game missed due to injury in his career, I see no reason to see him dropping off anytime soon. Obviously having Brees around allows him to be more productive, but he figures to be able to produce at a high level even after Brees is gone.

Aside from Thomas, no Saints wide receiver topped a 30/421/2 slash line last season, so they made adding at the wide receiver position a priority this off-season, signing veteran Emmanuel Sanders to a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal to replace the underwhelming Ted Ginn as the Saints’ #2 wide receiver. Sanders figures to take some targets away from Thomas, but he’ll also draw coverage away from Thomas and allow him to have more one-on-one looks. 

A thousand plus yard receiver for 3 straight seasons from 2014-2016 with the Broncos, Sanders’ best days are behind him, now going into his age 33 season, but he still finished 19th among wide receivers on PFF in 2019. Traded from the Broncos to the 49ers at the deadline, Sanders had a 66/869/5 slash line in 2020 and averaged 1.76 yards per route run. Sanders won’t have as big of a target share in New Orleans as he did in Denver or San Francisco, but New Orleans has a better passing offense and, if he can avoid regression due to age, he should have another solid statistical season. His age is a significant concern, however.

With no other Saints wide receiver doing much last season besides Michael Thomas, the Saints’ 2nd and 3rd leading receivers were tight end Jared Cook (43/705/9) and running back Alvin Kamara (81/533/1). Both players could see fewer targets than last season (65 and 97 respectively) due to the arrival of Sanders, but they should remain heavily involved in this passing game. Kamara, in particular, has bounce back potential, as he was limited due to injury in 2019, after posting a 81/826/5 and a 81/709/4 slash line in the first two seasons in his career in 2017 and 2018 respectively. He only missed two games, but he was clearly not the same player and averaged just 5.49 yards per target, down significantly from 7.49 in the first 2 seasons of his career. He may see fewer targets this season and still produce more than last season if he can stay healthy.

Cook, meanwhile, could be going the other way, with his age becoming a concern ahead of his age 33 season. Cook is coming off of arguably the best season of his 11-year career, earning a career best grade from PFF and finishing as their 10th ranked tight end overall, even though he once again struggled as a blocker as he has throughout his career. His 705 receiving yards were 8th among tight ends, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, as he also averaged 10.85 yards per target and ranked second at the position with 9 touchdowns. Cook posted a 54/668/2 slash line in 2017 and a 68/896/6 slash line in 2018, but he’s unlikely to match arguably the best season of his career, now in his 12th season in the league, and could easily drop off noticeably. He may be no higher than 4th on the pecking order behind Thomas, Sanders, and Kamara.

Tre’Quan Smith remains as the #3 wide receiver, although he did next to nothing in that role last season, posting a 18/234/5 slash line and averaging 0.82 yards per route run, 120th among 131 eligible wide receivers. Without a better option, they’ll continue using him in the same role and hope the 2018 3rd round pick can improve his underwhelming production (1.09 yards per route run in 2 seasons) in his 3rd season in the league. Still only going into his age 24 season, he should still have untapped potential, but he’s not a guarantee to ever deliver on it. 

Josh Hill is also still around as the #2 tight end and, while his 25 catches in 2019 were the most of his 7-year career, he’s a solid blocker who isn’t lost as a pass catcher, so you can do a lot worse out of your #2 tight end. This is a talented receiving corps that should benefit from a healthier Alvin Kamara and the addition of Emmanuel Sanders as a replacement for Ted Ginn, even if tight end Jared Cook seems likely to regress.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Alvin Kamara’s injuries also limited him as a runner. In the first two seasons of his career, the 2017 3rd round pick averaged 5.14 yards per carry with 22 rushing touchdowns and a 56% carry success rate on 314 carries. In 2019, that fell to 4.66 yards per carry with 5 rushing touchdowns and a 52% carry success rate on 171 carries. Overall, he fell from 1st among running backs on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and 5th in his 2nd season to 24th last season. Still going into his age 25 season, Kamara has obvious bounce back potential, but, going into the final year of his contract, it’s fair to wonder how long he’ll stay in New Orleans, with the Saints in the long-term cap situation they’re currently in. 

Kamara is also unlikely to significantly exceed his career high of 194 carries, as he gets a significant amount of touches through the air and the Saints don’t want to overuse him and further risk injury, so backup running back Latavius Murray should have a significant role again, after averaging 4.36 yards per carry on 146 carries last season. Murray has been a solid if unspectacular back in his career (4.15 YPC and 39 touchdowns on 1,045 carries), but his age is a concern, now going into his age 30 season. 

He’s a great complement to the smaller Kamara though, as he’s capable of getting the short yardage runs at 6-3 230. His 60% carry success rate in 2019 (2nd in the NFL) drastically exceeds what his YPC would have suggested. He’s not much of a pass catcher, but the Saints have a way of getting passing game production out of any back and the 34 catches he had last season were the 2nd most in a season in his 7 years in the league, even though he only had a part-time role. Even if he’s slightly declined in 2020, he should still be a useful player.

The only other player at note at this position is veteran Ty Montgomery. Montgomery, a converted wide receiver, is primarily insurance for Kamara as a pass catcher, but could also see a few carries per game in the big back role (6-0 222) if Murray ever missed time. Montgomery has averaged a decent 4.62 YPC average in his career, although he has just 224 carries in 5 seasons in the league and has recorded those numbers primarily against defenses expecting the pass. He’s an underwhelming player, but provides decent depth, especially on passing downs. If Kamara and Murray are both healthy, Montgomery figures to barely play as they are one of the top running back duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Saints used their first round draft pick on an offensive lineman, taking University of Michigan guard/center Cesar Ruiz 24th overall. The Saints didn’t have many pressing needs, but it was still a strange choice. Ruiz was considered the best of the guard/center class this year, but was mostly being pushed up into late first round contention by need for his position, which the Saints didn’t have. 

In New Orleans, he figures to start immediately at right guard, but he’ll be replacing incumbent Larry Warford, who was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard last season, so it would be difficult for him to be an upgrade or even a comparable player as a rookie. Warford was owed 7.75 million non-guaranteed for his contract year in 2020, but he’s only going into his age 29 season, so that’s not an unreasonable amount for him and the Saints didn’t immediately need the cap space created by releasing him. It was a strange move for a team that is definitely in win now mode.

What’s also strange is the Saints paid significantly more earlier this off-season to keep pending free agent left guard Andrus Peat, even though Warford has been the clearly better player over the past few seasons. Peat is younger (age 27 season), can play left tackle in a pinch (17 career starts), and is a former first round pick (13th overall in 2015), but injuries have limited him to 23 games combined over the past 2 seasons and he has finished in the bottom-15 among guards on PFF in both seasons, after earning solid grades for 37 starts in the first 3 seasons of his career. 

Peat has some bounce back potential, but it’s hard to justify his contract off of back-to-back down years, especially when you combine it with the Saints unnecessarily cutting Warford. The Saints could have let Peat walk and then drafted Ruiz to start at left guard or they could have even gone elsewhere in the draft and plugged veteran Nick Easton into the starting lineup at left guard as a replacement for Peat. Easton was signed to a starter’s contract, 4 years, 23 million, in free agency last off-season and has 23 career starts, including 6 as an injury replacement for Peat last season. He’s been an underwhelming starter throughout his career and finished 78th out of 89 eligible guards on PFF last season, but starting him and Warford would make more sense than paying Peat and cutting Warford.

Easton was originally signed to start at center, but he got bumped to the bench when the Saints moved up and drafted center Erik McCoy with the 48th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Saints gave up a pair of second round picks (62nd overall in 2019 and what became the 56th overall pick in 2020) to get McCoy, suggesting they had a first round grade on him, and that proved to be a good assessment, as McCoy was one of the best rookies in the league at any position, finishing 4th in the NFL among centers on PFF. A sophomore slump is definitely possible, but he could also continue developing into one of the best centers in the league for years to come. He’s obviously locked in to his starting job for 2020.

At tackle, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramcyzk remain and they are arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL. Armstead’s durability is a question though, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season. He played in a career high 15 last season, but missed 21 of 48 games in the previous 3 seasons and has missed 37 games total in 7 seasons in the league. If he misses time, it’s a significant absence, as he’s finished in the top-24 among offensive tackles on PFF in 6 straight seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-8. He’s only going into his age 29 season, so, aside from injury, he should continue playing well. 

Ramcyzk, meanwhile, is much more durable, making 47 of 48 starts since being drafted 32nd overall in 2017, and he’s finished in the top-9 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, including a #1 overall finish in 2019. He should continue his high level of play into 2020. Armstead and Peat have durability concerns, but when everyone is healthy, this is a strong group, even with some questionable decisions made at guard this off-season.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Saints’ defense carried the team during their 5-0 stretch without Brees, allowing a 32.01% first down rate over those games, but they were a pretty unremarkable group other than that, finishing 15th with a 35.04% first down rate allowed on the season. They didn’t make many significant chances defensively this off-season, so I would expect more of the same. That’s especially true at the defensive tackle spot, where they return their top-6 in terms of snaps played last season.

David Onyemata led the position with 565 snaps played and was kept off the open market on a 3-year, 23 million dollar extension this off-season. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has played an average of 594 snaps per season over the past 3 seasons and arguably had his worst season of the 3 last season, but he’s still been an average or better starter in all 3 seasons, playing adequately against the run and totalling 9.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate. He’s typically rotated in primarily in passing situations and that should continue in 2020.

Sheldon Rankins is expected to be the other starter at the position, at least nominally, on a team that rotates heavily at the position. Many expected Rankins to lead the position in snaps in 2019, but he missed the first 3 games of the season rehabbing from a January 2019 torn achilles and then he missed the final 3 games of the season after a precautionary procedure on his other achilles. In between, Rankins played 323 underwhelming snaps in 10 games. 

Two leg injuries put a damper on his long-term projection, especially since he also had a major leg injury as a rookie in 2016, but Rankins is a former first round pick who finished 24th among interior defenders on PFF in 2018 before the achilles tear, and, still only going into his age 26 season, he still has plenty of upside and bounce back potential. In the final year of his rookie deal, Rankins is entering a make or break year with the team, especially given their long-term cap problems beyond this season.

While Rankins and Onyemata figure to play primarily in sub packages, Malcom Brown and Shy Tuttle should play primarily base package roles, after playing 487 snaps and 340 snaps respectively in that role in 2019. Brown came over from the Patriots last off-season on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal and largely played how he did in New England, earning an above average grade against the run, but managing just a 5.6% pressure rate (5.9% for his career). He should continue serving well in a situational role in 2019. 

Tuttle, meanwhile, was more of a surprise, as the 2019 undrafted free agent flashed on 340 snaps as a rookie, not just against the run, but also adding a pair of sacks and a 7.7% pressure rate in limited pass rush opportunities. He’s very unproven and it’s still worth remembering the whole league let him go undrafted a year ago, but he’s earned an opportunity for more playing time, especially in passing situations. He’s still a projection to that larger role, however, and could easily regress in his second season.

Veteran Mario Edwards could also be in the mix after playing 293 snaps last season, assuming he makes the roster. The 2015 second round pick flashed early in his career, but then got hurt and has been limited to an average of 259 underwhelming snaps per season in 4 seasons since a promising rookie year. He’ll be competing for playing time and roster spots with veteran free agent addition Margus Hunt and possibly third year undrafted free agent Taylor Stallworth, who played just 93 snaps last season and has played just 411 snaps in 2 seasons in the league. 

Hunt comes over from the Colts on a cheap one-year, 1.05 million dollar deal. Hunt had some solid years as a run stuffer with the Colts, but he’s never been much of a pass rusher and is now going into his age 33 season and coming off of a season in which he was PFF’s 114th ranked interior defender out of 125 qualifiers on 451 snaps. He’s not guaranteed a roster spot at a deep position. As deep as they are though, they lack a standout player unless Rankins can get back on track and return to his 2018 form.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The only player on this defensive line who plays every down is defensive end Cameron Jordan, who played 877 snaps last season and has averaged 59.7 snaps per game over the past 8 seasons. Despite the massive snap totals, Jordan has never missed a game in 9 seasons in the league, the 2nd longest active streak in the NFL by a defensive player. He’s also been one of the best at his position over his career, finishing in the top-12 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons and totaling 58 sacks, 50 hits, and 12.5% pressure rate over that stretch, while dominating against the run. Going into his age 31 season, it’s reasonable to expect him to begin declining soon, but even a somewhat declined Jordan is one of the better edge defenders in the league.

Marcus Davenport also played at a high level on the other side last season, albeit on a much smaller snap count. Davenport averaged 41.0 snaps per game in 13 games and was PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender, playing at a high level against the run and as a pass rusher. His 6 sacks don’t jump off the page, but he added 10 hits and a 14.4% pressure rate in somewhat limited action. The 14th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Davenport played well on 416 snaps as a rookie as well and, now going into his 3rd season in the league, could easily earn himself a larger role and have a breakout season, which would force defenses to have to pay more attention to him, freeing up Jordan on the other side in the process.

Third defensive end Trey Hendrickson also figures to remain in the mix, even if Davenport sees a larger snap count. A third round pick in 2017, Henderson has earned middling grades on an average of 274 snaps per season, including a career high 404 in 2019. A competent run stuffer to boot, Hendrickson also has a solid 10.3% pressure rate in his career. Not even 26 until December, Hendrickson still has room to get better, but he’d need an injury ahead of him on the depth chart to see significant playing time. The Saints also used a third round pick on Zack Baun, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker who could see snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages. This is a deep position led by a potentially dominant starting duo.

Grade: A

Linebackers

At linebacker, the Saints need to replace starter AJ Klein, who played 754 snaps and subsequently signed with the Bills this off-season, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 qualifiers, so it won’t be hard to replace him. Zack Baun could see some action at linebacker, but the undersized collegiate defensive end (6-2 238) is relatively new to being an off ball linebacker, so he probably won’t have a significant role as a rookie, even if he has the athleticism to develop into a plus starter long-term.

Instead, it will likely be Alex Anzalone who will get the first crack at replacing Klein. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Anzalone has always shown starter ability, but has had trouble staying healthy dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Florida, most notably repeated shoulder injuries. In the most significant action of his career in 2018, Anzalone was PFF’s 25th ranked off ball linebacker on 487 snaps and played all 16 games, but he’s been limited to 204 snaps in 6 games total in his other two seasons combined. If he can stay healthy in 2020, he should play a lot, but that’s a big if.

Veterans Kiko Alonso and Craig Robertson are his biggest competition for playing time and one of those two would likely take over as the starter if Anzalone got hurt again. Even if Anzalone stays healthy, Alonso and Robertson figure to compete for playing time in base packages with Baun, though Alonso’s situation is complicated by a torn ACL suffered in January in the playoff loss to Minnesota, his third career ACL tear. Injuries have derailed a once promising career for Alonso and, while he showed well in limited action on 285 snaps in 2019, he’s now going into his age 30 season and coming off yet another significant injury, so it’s hard to count on him for much. Robertson, meanwhile, has 65 career starts, but he was never a particularly good starter, and now he is going into his age 32 season with just 279 defensive snaps played over the past 2 seasons combined.

Demario Davis is the only one locked into an every down role. Davis had a largely unremarkable first 5 seasons in the league, making 66 starts, but earning middling at best grades from PFF and ultimately getting benched and traded by the Browns to the Jets for a player who never made the Browns’ final roster. In his first season with the Jets in 2017, Davis finished a career high 19th among off ball linebackers on PFF and has gotten better from there, finishing 15th in 2018 and 2nd in 2019. Now going into his age 31 season, it’s unreasonable to expect Davis to repeat the best season of his career, but he’s not totally over the hill and could easily remain a solid every down player for another couple seasons at least. His presence elevates a group that otherwise has question marks.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Saints’ big addition on defense this off-season was safety Malcolm Jenkins, who spent the first 5 seasons of his career in New Orleans before spending the past 6 in Philadelphia. Jenkins comes back to the Saints on a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal and will essentially replace free agent departure Vonn Bell as the primary box safety. Bell excelled against the run, finishing 1st in run stopping grade among safeties on Pro Football Focus last season, but struggled mightily in coverage, finishing 94th out of 100 eligible on PFF in that aspect.

Jenkins should be more balanced, but his age is a concern in his age 33 season and his 11th season overall. Jenkins has been very durable in recent years, not missing a game since his final season in New Orleans in 2013, but his 48th ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2019 was a noticeable dropoff after 5 straight seasons in the top-28 from 2014-2018. He could easily continue declining over the next couple seasons, so it’s surprising the Saints were willing to guarantee him 16.25 million over the next 2 seasons.

With Jenkins primarily playing in the box, fellow starting safety Marcus Williams will continue playing deep, where he has excelled in 3 years in the league. Williams finished 6th among safeties on PFF as a rookie and then 6th again last season, with a “down” year where he ranked 31st in between. Still only going into his age 24 season, Williams could somehow keep getting even better. Because Williams was a second round pick, the Saints don’t have a 5th year option for him, so, even with all their long-term cap problems, they should lock him up as soon as possible because his asking price isn’t going to go down.

The Saints didn’t add anything at cornerback this off-season and actually lost Eli Apple, who made 15 starts last season, but Apple finished 84th out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in coverage grade last season and was made expendable by an addition the Saints made late last season, signing veteran Janoris Jenkins after he was waived by the Giants. The Saints inherited the rest of Jenkins’ 5-year, 62.5 million dollar contract when they claimed him on waivers last season, but they did so with the intention of restructuring the rest of his non-guaranteed deal after the season, which they did, agreeing to a new 3-year, 27 million contract that guarantees him 11.25 million over the next year.

Jenkins is going into his age 32 season, so he did well to get that much guaranteed for one season, but he earned an above average grade on PFF for the 6th straight season in 2019 and, while he has never lived up to his 2016 season when he finished 9th, Jenkins has been a solid starting cornerback for several years and hasn’t shown many signs of decline yet, especially excelling in his final two games of last season after joining the Saints. His age makes him a risk, but he should be an upgrade on Apple.

Marshon Lattimore will start at cornerback on the other side and remains the Saints’ top cornerback. The 11th overall pick in 2017 NFL Draft, Lattimore burst on to the scene by finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he’s actually regressed in both seasons since, finishing 29th among cornerbacks in 2018 and 45th in 2019. Lattimore is still only going into his age 24 season, so he still has a massive upside, but he’ll need to bounce back in 2020 if he’s going to justify the massive extension he’s inevitably going to ask for, with two years left on his rookie deal.

The only spot unsettled in this secondary is the slot cornerback spot. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has plenty of experience on the slot and the Saints could use a lot of three safety looks in sub packages Williams with Chaucney Gardner-Johnson, who can also play the slot. Gardner-Johnson was just a 4th round pick in 2019, but he was expected to go a couple rounds earlier and definitely looked like he should have as a rookie, flashing on 547 snaps between cornerback and safety. Also versatile enough to play linebacker, he should have a role in this secondary, even if it’s not as an every down player.

PJ Williams was the third cornerback last season, but struggled in that role, finishing 118th out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on 799 snaps, so the Saints probably would prefer not to use him anywhere near as many snaps in 2020. Gardner-Johnson figures to be the primary beneficiary of Williams’ playing time being scaled back and the Saints also have veteran slot cornerback Patrick Robinson, who finished 6th among cornerbacks in 2017 with the Eagles, but has been very inconsistent throughout his career and has played just 280 snaps in 2 seasons since. Going into his age 33 season, he’s probably not a candidate for significant playing time. 

Another veteran DJ Swearinger was also added late last season, after starting the season with the Cardinals and Raiders. Swearinger has flashed in his career, even finishing 14th among safeties on PFF as recently as 2018, and he’s only going into his age 29 season, but he’s bounced around six teams already in his career because of issues with coaches. Despite his relative youth and how well he played in 2018, he was limited to mediocre 484 snaps with three teams last season and is nothing more than a flyer for the Saints. Still, he adds good depth to a secondary that has plenty of it. Janoris Jenkins and Malcolm Jenkins are concerns because of their age and the third cornerback spot is still being worked out, but this is a strong unit overall led by Marcus Williams and Marcus Lattimore.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Saints once again look like one of the top few teams in the league. They have a rare combination of talented young players on inexpensive rookie deals (Marcus Williams, Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Davenport, Ryan Ramcyzk, Alvin Kamara, Erik McCoy) and expensive veteran talent, with the second highest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual value. They’ve kept all of that under the cap through some creative contract structuring that leaves them significantly over 2021’s cap without re-signing several key players with expiring rookie deals and they could be in trouble long-term when Drew Brees retires, but this team is once again all in and should once again be one of the top teams in the league in the regular season. The trick will be finishing it off in the post-season this time.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 81.71

Defensive Score: 76.37

Total Score: 79.04 (1st in NFC South)

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2019 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The Vikings qualified for the post-season, but they finished the season just 1-4 against fellow playoff qualifiers, tied with the Bills for worst among playoff qualifiers. Their one win came against an Eagles team that only qualified because they play in the NFC East, while their losses came against the Packers twice, the Seahawks, and even the Matt Moore led Chiefs, back when Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury. Making this even more concerning is Kirk Cousins’ well-documented struggles in big games. Cousins’ 7-15 record in primetime games (6-15-1 ATS) is well known, but his record in all games against teams with a winning record is even worse. 

Dating back to his first year as a starter in 2015, in games against teams entering with a winning record, excluding any games in week 3 or earlier when a team’s record might not mean much, Cousins’ teams are just 7-21, including just 3-10 since joining the Vikings. His ATS record of 10-17-1 ATS isn’t horrendous, but he’s just 3-9-1 ATS since joining the Vikings. There isn’t much to go off in terms of Cousins’ post-season history, as this is just his 2nd career playoff start, but it’s not a stretch to say his struggles against tough opponents will probably extend into the post-season and his lack of post-season experience could also work against him, facing a quarterback/head coach duo with 14 career playoff starts together in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

In addition to having significant post-season experience, the Saints are also playing about as well as any team in the league right now. Since Drew Brees’ return from injury in week 8, the Saints rank 3rd in first down rate at 42.03% and 2nd in first down rate differential at +6.61. Their offense has been even better in recent weeks, with a 44.62% first down rate in their past 6 games and a 46.59% first down rate in their past 4 games, both best in the NFL over that stretch. 

It might seem improbable that the Saints can continue that rate going forward, but the Saints had a 43.48% first down rate last season in Brees’ 15 starts and at one point had a 45.69% first down rate through 11 games before slowing down late in the season, possibly due to an aging Drew Brees getting tired at the end of a 16-game season. This season, Brees’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the missed time seems to have him fresher at the end of the season. Now fully past the injury, Brees seems to be heating up just in time for the playoffs. 

The Saints’ defense finished just 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.04% and they lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, pair of key defensive linemen, with injury late in the season, but the Saints have more than enough on offense to compensate and they still have plenty of talent on defense. This line is pretty high at New Orleans -7.5, so there isn’t quite enough here to confidently bet on the Saints, especially since a Kirk Cousins backdoor cover seems somewhat likely, but New Orleans should be the right side.

New Orleans Saints 34 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

The Panthers have had a wild ride at quarterback this season and are now on their third quarterback of the season. Cam Newton limped through the first two games of the season with a foot injury that was worse than he let anyone know, costing them a pair of winnable games that were decided by a combined 9 points. Newton then shut himself down for the good of the team and backup Kyle Allen went on to win his next 4 games, making the Panthers look like a borderline contender going into their week 7 bye.

The wheels have fallen off for the Panthers since that bye week though, as they rank 31st in first down rate differential over that stretch at -7.20%. The offense, which ranks 21st in first down rate over that stretch at 34.99%, hasn’t been their biggest problem, as their defense has fallen from a 33.97% first down rate allowed over their first 6 games (7th in the NFL) to a 42.19% first down rate allowed over the past 9 weeks (31st in the NFL), but their offense has been carried by running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore and Allen was responsible for 18 giveaways over a 8-game stretch, leading to him being benched for 3rd round rookie Will Grier before last week’s game in Indianapolis.

Grier’s debut went about as bad as possible, as he completed 27 of 44 for 224 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 picks and led the Panthers to just a 26.76% first down rate in a 38-6 loss to the Colts, who entered last week ranking just 22nd in first down rate allowed. Grier struggled in the pre-season as well, leading to the Panthers naming Allen the backup going into the season. Grier will get another shot in the Panthers’ season finale, which isn’t a bad idea because the Panthers used a relatively high pick on him and need to evaluate him in game action, but he’s unlikely to be much better in his 2nd start, especially with top wide receiver DJ Moore out for this game after missing most of last week’s game. The defense also hasn’t gotten any better since firing head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and the team seems to have somewhat mailed it in. Overall, they rank just 30th in my roster rankings.

The Saints, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum, tied for the best record in the NFC at 12-3 with a shot at a first round bye. Making that even more impressive is the fact that quarterback Drew Brees missed close to 6 full games with injury. Backup Teddy Bridgewater was able to squeak out some wins in games in which their defense played at a high level, but their offense has been significantly better with Brees on the field this season, moving the chains at a 34.15% first down rate with Bridgewater on the field (most similar to the 24th ranked Lions on the season) and a 41.52% first down rate with Brees on the field (most similar to the 2nd ranked Chiefs on the season). 

The Saints’ offense has been especially good in recent weeks, ranking only behind the Ravens with a 43.36% first down rate over their past 6 games. Their defense took a big hit a couple weeks ago when defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport went down for the season and they’ll also be without safety Marcus Williams this week, but the Saints have more than enough offense to compensate and look like one of the top few Super Bowl contenders going into the post-season. They should be able to take care of business against a hapless Panthers team in their final post-season tune-up.

Unfortunately, the Saints are 13-point road favorites in this game, up from 10.5 on the early line a week ago. While the Saints should win this game pretty easily, there’s definitely uncertainty over whether or not they’ll play a complete enough game to cover this large spread, especially with Williams out. There’s also uncertainty in this game because, due to tiebreakers, the outcome of this game will only affect the Saints’ seeding if the Packers lose as heavy favorites to the Lions.

If the Packers win and Seahawks defeat the 49ers on Sunday Night to win the NFC West, the Saints would move into the 2nd seed in the NFC regardless of the outcome of this game because they currently have a one game lead and a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Seahawks. If the 49ers win that game, the Saints would be stuck in the 3rd seed regardless of the outcome of this game because the 49ers have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. 

Saints head coach Sean Payton has said he will treat this as a real game, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pull his starters in the 2nd half if the Packers are up big on the Lions because that will render this game meaningless. That would allow the Panthers to potentially get a backdoor cover even if they get dominated when the Saints’ starters are in the game. For that reason, I’m taking the Panthers, but this is a no confidence pick because of all the uncertainty.

New Orleans Saints 31 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina +13

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-3) at Tennessee Titans (8-6)

Since turning to backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill in week 7, the Titans rank 5th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +4.37%. They are 6-2 over that stretch, after starting 2-4, with their only losses coming in games against the Panthers and Texans that they easily could have won if a few snaps went differently. Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team either, as the Titans’ defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 24th in first down rate differential at 37.28%, after ranking 4th at 30.93% through the first 6 games of the season, and 4th at 32.77% in 2018. The offense, which ranks 2nd in first down rate at 42.18% since Tannehill became the starter, has carried this team, after ranking 26th at 32.69% through the first 6 games of the season, and 24th at 34.12% in 2018. 

That being said, the Titans offense is unlikely to be quite this good going forward. They have talent around the quarterback position and Tannehill has proven he can be a capable starter, but it’s unlikely he has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league. It would be reasonable to expect regression from him going forward, which the defense will need to compensate for. Unfortunately, their defense remains banged up, with edge defender Cameron Wake and cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler still out and defensive end Jeffery Simmons possibly joining them after missing practice on Friday with a lingering knee issue.

The Titans are still a competitive opponent, but we’re not getting the line value with them that we were a few weeks ago. With a dominant Saints team coming to town, the Titans are only 2.5-point home underdogs. The Saints lost a pair of key defensive linemen in their loss to the 49ers a couple weeks ago, with Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins done for the year, and their defense ranks just 35.78% in first down rate allowed at 17th even with Davenport and Rankins playing most of the season, but their offense is definitely good enough to compensate. 

They have a 41.41% first down rate when Brees is on the field, which would be second best in the NFL on the season, and that arguably understates how good their offense will be going forward. They had a 43.48% first down rate differential in Brees’ starts last season and have been even better than that in recent weeks, with a 45.19% first down rate over the past 4 games. We’re still getting a little bit of line value with the Titans, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -1, but we’re not getting enough line value with the Titans at +2.5 for them to be worth betting. The money line at +115 is worth a small play because the Titans odds of winning this game are close to 50/50, but this is a low confidence pick for pick ‘em purposes, unless the line moves up to a full field goal.

Final Update: Not only is Simmons out for the Titans, but running back Derrick Henry is a surprise inactive as well. Henry’s absence is obviously big, but, beyond the impact his absence will have on this team, the reasoning behind Henry being inactive is even more important to predicting this game. Due to how tiebreakers work, because this is a non-conference game, this is actually a rare case of a week 16 game not mattering at all for a potential playoff qualifier. With the Texans winning yesterday, the Titans have been eliminated from contention for a division title, but, regardless of the outcome of this game against the Saints, the Titans can still clinch a wild card berth if they beat the Texans next week and the Steelers lose one of their next two games. If the Steelers win out or the Titans lose to the Texans next week, the Titans are eliminated regardless of what happens in this non-conference matchup with the Saints. This line has skyrocketed to 3.5, but I’m really concerned about the Titans’ psyche in a meaningless game, so I’m switching this pick to New Orleans for a no confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: None

Indianapolis Colts at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-7) at New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The Saints didn’t just lose a big conference matchup against the 49ers last week. They also lost a pair of key defensive linemen for the season in Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport. The Saints are still talented enough to win the Super Bowl without them, but that’s a big blow to their defense. Both were missed badly after going down last week in a game in which the Saints allowed the 49ers to move the chains at a 49.21% rate, dropping the Saints to 17th in the league in the season with a 35.98% first down rate allowed on the season. Their offense has been better, moving the chains at a 40.31% rate when Drew Brees is in the lineup, most equivalent to the 3rd ranked Chiefs on the season. They’ll need to continue playing at a high level for this team to make a deep playoff run without Rankins and Davenport.

The Colts also have injury concerns, with top cornerback Kenny Moore out and top wide receiver TY Hilton a gametime decision after a 2-game absence, but the Colts have been missing key players all season and are arguably in better injury shape now than they’ve been in most of the season, especially if Hilton can suit up. Despite their injuries, they’ve been competitive, losing just 1 game all season by more than 7 points. 

The Colts are likely out of the playoffs at 6-7 barring a miracle, but they’ve played slightly better than their record suggests, ranking 14th in first down rate differential at +1.06%. Kicker Adam Vinatieri struggled mightily this season, making just 68.0% of his first goals and 78.6% of his extra points and costing them at least a couple games, but he’s been placed on injured reserve and replaced with Chase McLaughlin, who has a 75.0% field goal percentage and 100% extra point percentage on the season, so kicker isn’t as much of a problem anymore. 

If Vinatieri hadn’t missed very makeable field goals against the Chargers and Steelers, the Colts would be 8-5 right now and very much in the mix in the AFC South. I doubt they’d be 9 point underdogs in New Orleans in that circumstance, so with that in mind we’re getting some line value with the Colts. How much line value ultimately depends on whether or not Hilton plays and if the line moves in response. If Hilton plays and this line stays above a touchdown, I’ll likely place a bet on the Colts. I’ll probably be updating this writeup before gametime Monday night.

Final Update: Hilton is active, so the Colts are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 30 Indianapolis Colts 24

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +9

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (10-2) at New Orleans Saints (10-2)

This is one of the biggest games of the year, as it could be an NFC Championship preview and could easily end up deciding homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC when all is said and done. The 49ers have fallen to 10-2 after an 8-0 start, but both losses came by a field goal against teams that are also 10-2 and, despite those losses, the 49ers still rank 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +7.94% and 2nd since week 7 at +5.65%, only behind the red hot Ravens. 

The 49ers also haven’t been healthy in recent weeks, but they’re closer to full strength than they’ve been in a while right now. Defensive end Ronald Blair and linebacker Kwon Alexander are out for the year and safety Jaquiski Tartt is also out this week, but cornerback Akhello Witherspoon (6 games), right tackle Mike McGlinchey (4 games), tight end George Kittle (2 games), left tackle Joe Staley (9 games), safety Jimmie Ward (3 games), running back Matt Breida (3 games), and defensive end Dee Ford (2 games) are all expected to play this week after missing significant time earlier in the year. 

The 49ers are getting healthy at the right time ahead of this tough matchup. The Saints only rank 13th in first down rate differential on the season at +1.54%, but their offense was significantly worse with quarterback Drew Brees out of the lineup. With Brees on the field, the Saints have a 38.58% first down rate, which would be 6th in the NFL on the season. Their defense, meanwhile, ranks 12th in first down rate allowed on the season at 34.87%, so this is a very complete team. 

I actually have the Saints a little bit higher in my roster rankings than the 49ers, though that’s dependent on whether or not injured left tackle Terron Armstead is able to return from a 1-game absence after being limited in practice all week. My pick will be dependant on that as well. If Armstead plays, I like the Saints’ chances to win by at least a field goal at home, but I’d like the 49ers to pull the minor upset if Armstead can’t play.

Final Update: With Armstead playing, I’m switching my pick to New Orleans. This line is now 1.5 in most places, but that doesn’t matter.

New Orleans Saints 23 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -1.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-8)

Both of these teams underperformed expectations last week, with the Saints barely escaping with a last second, game winning field goal as 10-point home favorites over the Panthers and the Falcons losing at home by 13 to the Buccaneers as 4-point favorites. That’s not surprising though, as favorites tend to underperform before a short week (44% cover spot all-time). Both teams came into last week playing pretty well too. The Falcons have just three wins all season, but two of them came in upset fashion in back-to-back weeks prior to last week, with the Falcons beating the Saints and Panthers by a combined score of 55-12. The Falcons have also played better than their 3-8 record suggests, entering this game 18th in first down rate differential at 0.22%.

The Saints, meanwhile, are one of the top teams in the league, despite their upset loss to the Falcons a few weeks ago and their close call against the Panthers last week. They only rank 13th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.71%, but their offense has moved the chains at a 5.30% higher rate with Drew Brees under center rather than backup Teddy Bridgewater, so with Brees back healthy the Saints are as complete as any team in the league. They’ll be without left tackle Terron Armstead in this matchup, but still have the top spot in my roster rankings without him. 

Despite that, we’re getting some line value with the Falcons as 7-point underdogs, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -4.5. However, the Saints have added motivation to win and avenge their previous loss, while the Falcons might not be totally focused in a lost season against an opponent they’ve already beaten once. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 36-25 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s also uncertainty on the Falcons’ side with top receiver Julio Jones not practicing all week. Even if he is active, he might be less than 100% and at risk of reduced snaps or in game setbacks. The Falcons are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I wouldn’t bet on them.

New Orleans Saints 33 Atlanta Falcons 28

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +7

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-5) at New Orleans Saints (8-2)

The Saints surprisingly lost at home to the then 1-7 Falcons a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t even really close, with a final score of 26-9. However, the Falcons were better than that 1-7 record suggested, entering that game 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, and the Falcons have also since gone on to defeat the Panthers 29-3, so that loss doesn’t look so bad anymore, especially since the Saints were able to follow it up with a convincing 34-17 win in Tampa Bay last week. 

With Drew Brees back under center, the Saints are currently the top team in my roster rankings. Their defense has been solid all season, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 34.00%, and their offense has been significantly better in games started by Brees than it has been in games started by Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater led this offense to a 34.15% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 23rd ranked Panthers on the season, while Brees has led this offense to a 38.10% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 10th ranked Colts on the season. Their offense could have even more room for upside, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Brees’ starts last season. Even if this offense doesn’t improve any further, the Saints are arguably the only team in the league with both a top-10 offense and defense. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, have struggled mightily in recent weeks, with backup quarterback Kyle Allen unsurprisingly falling back to earth after a surprisingly strong start to the season. After Allen won his first 4 starts, the Panthers have lost 3 of 4, with their only win in that stretch coming against the Titans in a game they lost the first down rate battle by 3.95%, winning by 10 in a game the Titans missed 3 makeable field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. On the season, the Panthers rank just 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.59%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 22nd. With the Saints at the top of my roster rankings, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -14, so we’re getting good line value with the Saints as 10-point home favorites.

Unfortunately, the Saints are in a much worse spot than the Panthers this week, which hurts their chances of covering. While the Saints have a rematch with the Falcons in 4 days on Thanksgiving, the Panthers have arguably their easiest game of the season on deck, at home against the Redskins, a game in which they are expected to be 9-point favorites. Underdogs of a touchdown or more are 64-41 ATS since 1989 before being favorites of a touchdown or more. The Saints will be favored next week as well, but there could still be some split focus with a team that just defeated them on deck, especially before a short week (favorites cover at just a 44% rate before a short week). The Saints should still be the right side, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet on it. If this line drops and/or cornerback Marshon Lattimore is active for the Saints, I may reconsider.

New Orleans Saints 34 Carolina Panthers 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (7-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6)

The Saints suffered a shocking home loss to the Falcons as 13.5-point home favorites last week, not just losing but losing by the final score of 26-9 in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 8.57%. The peripheral numbers always suggested the Falcons weren’t as bad as their record, as they entered last week 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, despite being just 1-7, but the idea that they could somewhat easily upset the Saints, previously seen as one of the top teams in the league, was beyond anything even the biggest Falcons’ defender could have imagined.

Even with that loss included, the Saints still look like one of the top teams in the league. They rank “just” 11th in first down rate differential at +2.07%, but that’s because Drew Brees has only played a little bit more than 3 of their 9 games. Their offense has moved the chains at a 38.28% rate with Brees under center (most equivalent to the 9th ranked Packers), as opposed to 34.15% with backup Teddy Bridgewater under center (most equivalent to the 23rd ranked Cardinals), while their defense has been among the best in the league on the season, ranking 6th in first down rate allowed at 33.58%. Their offense has even more room for improvement too, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Drew Brees’ 15 starts last season. They rank second in my roster rankings and, with all Super Bowl contenders having at least one bad loss, they still look very much in Super Bowl contention.

Teams tend to bounce back off of huge upset losses anyway, going 30-18 ATS over the past 30 years after losing as favorites or 13 or more. The Saints have typically bounced back off of a loss with Drew Brees under center as well, going 47-31 ATS after a loss with Brees since he arrived in 2006. I wish we were getting more line value as a result as the Saints’ loss and the absence of Saints top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, as this line didn’t move at all from last week to this week, but I have this line calculated at New Orleans -8 and I would be surprised if the Saints had back-to-back bad games, so they’re worth a bet as long as this line remains below 6.

New Orleans Saints 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (1-7) at New Orleans Saints (7-1)

This was one of the tougher games of the week to decide. On one hand, the Saints are arguably the top team in the league. They’ve gone 7-1, despite Drew Brees only playing about nine quarters all season. Their defense ranks 5th in first down rate differential at 33.05% and has been even better over the past 5 games at 27.90%, since the return of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins from injury. They’re at home this week for a 1-win Falcons team and could easily get a multi-touchdown blowout win and cover this 13.5-point line.

On the other hand, the Falcons have statistically been better this season than their record, especially in garbage time, which really matters for a line this big. They rank 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, struggling to win games primarily because of a -11 turnover margin that is the second worst in the NFL. Their defense ranks dead last in the NFL at 41.70%, but their offense ranks 2nd in first down rate at 41.41%, even moving the ball effectively with Matt Schaub under center in their last game (45.07% first down rate). Now with Matt Ryan back healthy, they could keep this game close, even against a top level opponent. My calculated line is New Orleans -13, so we’re getting a tiny bit of line value with the Falcons, but that’s it.

New Orleans Saints 33 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +13.5

Confidence: None